Annie comes from a poverty -stricken Romani family deep in the Black Country in the 19th century. On a visit to a country fair her mother decides she must be sold to save her brothers and sisters, Annie tearful accepts her fate.. The highest bidder is Bill Perry, a tough hard drinking man who organises boxing bouts. Luckily for Annie though he takes the young girl under his care.
So starts a wonderful novel that took me back to Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ which also starts with the sale of a female (this time a wife) by the evil Trenchard (later to be Mayor). The themes of Kitson’s plot also revolve around themes of rejection, lost hope, vulnerability. But in Annie it also shows us a strong woman, way ahead of her time who decides she can also turn her hand (or fists) to pugilism (boxing)
I was intrigued to read about women boxers and surprised to see records of such bouts from the 1720s. Travelling shows displayed many attractions from the gruesome and cruelly displayed to the many items on which you could shout and lay bets. Annie becomes part of that hard but caring world. The life in Bill’s pub is well described and show him probably at both his best and worst.
There is an excellent backdrop of the social history of the times bringing in the coming of railways beyond the carts and caravans, the foggers and nailmasters in the black and dirty world beside the canals near Birmingham, slavery and radical reform with the Riot Acts and Chartists.
The characters are well written from Annie and Bill to the world of rich brat Lord Ledbury and the wonderful two sisters the Miss Warrens, daughters of Rev Elijah Warren who start a school where Annie takes easily to learning – bringing in poetry, the Bible and Shakespeare to try and lift herself educationally. News of her family will bring despair later and the mysterious ‘Black Cloak’ highwayman links Annie to her past and to a possible escape to a brighter future.
If you are averse to fisti cuff violence in the boxing ring approach with caution as there is much punching, spilling of blood and broken noses. Names like the Tipton Slasher, Irish Hurricane and I remember Bendigo with his Nottingham connections all come to life in the world this author superbly enriches with laughter alongside life threatening attacks. There is also a lilting love of nature in the countryside alongside the human endeavours. Again a reminder of Hardy’s Wessex perhaps?
It’s tough out there but Annie takes us on a hard but often happy tour of her life. I loved it as a personal read and think for book groups this will be something so completely different that engages from the start. Be warned – the gloves are off!
Reviewed by Philipa Coughlan
Published by Canongate Books; Main edition (6 May 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1838851910